In his memoir, Night, the late Romanian Jewish writer and Boston University professor Eli Wiesel recalled his 1944 arrival “at Birkenau, reception center for Auschwitz”:
“Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, which has turned my life into one long night, seven times cursed and seven times sealed. Never shall I forget that smoke. Never shall I forget the little faces of the children, whose bodies I saw turned into wreaths of smoke beneath a silent blue sky. Never shall I forget those flames which consumed my faith forever. Never shall I forget the nocturnal silence which deprived me, for all eternity, of the desire to live. Never shall I forget those moments which murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to dust. Never shall I forget these things, even if I am condemned to live as long as God himself. Never.”
Auschwitz didn’t just steal Eli Wiesel’s God, soul and dreams; it murdered them.
The 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz by Russian soldiers occurred on Holocaust Remembrance Day, January 27, 2020. The day before, the Washington Post published reporter Gillian Brockell’s account of the exploits of Witold Pilecki, “a Polish resistance fighter who voluntarily went to Auschwitz to start a resistance.” His secret reports to Allies were the first to describe the cruelties of what became the largest of the Nazi death camps.
Brockell writes of Pilecki’s 1941 arrival at the camp:
“Nothing could have prepared him for the brutality he found. As he leaped out of a train car with hundreds of other men, he was beaten with clubs. Ten men were randomly pulled from the group and shot. Another man was asked his profession; when he said he was a doctor, he was beaten to death. Anyone who was educated or Jewish was beaten. Those remaining were robbed of their valuables, stripped, shaved, assigned a number and prison stripes, and then marched out to stand in the first of many roll calls.”
“Let none of you imagine that he will ever leave this place alive,” an SS guard declared. “The rations have been calculated so that you will only survive six weeks.”
The gas chambers were not operative at that time, but the ovens were already at work. Brockell notes, “The only way out of Auschwitz, another guard said, was through the chimney.” Over a year later, Pilecki miraculously escaped, continuing his anti-Nazi resistance in Poland only to be executed by the post-war Soviet-controlled Polish government in 1947.
Few prisoners escaped Auschwitz. Some 1.1 to 1.9 million human beings died there, 90 percent of whom were Jews. Others included some 19,000 Roma (“Gypsy”) people, disabled and LGBT persons, and resistance fighters. The last generation of Auschwitz survivors is passing off the scene, even as “Holocaust deniers” promulgate their lies, not only throughout Europe, but also in the land of the free and the home of “alternative facts.” The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum asserts that such denial is an anti-Semitic “claim that the Holocaust was invented or exaggerated by Jews as part of a plot to advance Jewish interests.” It is often closely linked to white supremacist and other racist theories (that are often accompanied by biblical citations and allusions).
These two irreconcilable statements must be heard as one: Auschwitz was liberated 75 years ago. Yet, anti-Semitism endures, now unleashed with new vigor in the American public square.
“The last generation of Auschwitz survivors is passing off the scene, even as ‘Holocaust deniers’ promulgate their lies.”
Jonathan Greenblatt, Anti-Defamation League CEO, observes that violent “acts of Anti-Semitism are now the new normal.” On the decline from 2001, they have risen sharply in the years since 2014. These include a shooting in December 2019 at a New Jersey Jewish market in which two people died; a deadly firearm attack on Chabad of Poway synagogue north of San Diego in April 2019; and the death of 11 Jewish worshipers at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh in October 2018.
The horrific words, “Jews will not replace us,” chanted in that white supremacist torchlight parade in Charlottesville, Virginia, on August 11, 2017, continue to haunt the American psyche. A day later, African American scholar Jemar Tisby asked in a Washington Post op-ed: “Will white pastors finally take racism seriously?” At the 75th anniversary of Auschwitz’s liberation, might we add: “Will Christians finally take anti-Semitism seriously?” Certainly, many have – but, God have mercy, not nearly enough.
How might we extend those efforts?
First, let us confess to, and repent of, the church’s historic legacy of anti-Semitism by which medieval Catholics compelled Jews to convert to Christianity, often scapegoating them as sources of assorted social upheavals, and ghettoing Jews across Europe. (There were minority voices, like the 12th-century Doctor of the Church, Bernard of Clairvaux, who attempted to offer support for the Jewish community. Bernard wrote, “For us the Jews are Scripture’s living words, because they remind us of what Our Lord suffered. They are not to be persecuted, killed, or even put to flight.”)
We Protestants have many anti-Semitic burdens to carry, beginning with Martin Luther’s 1541 diatribe, “On the Jews and their Lies,” which declared:
“What shall we Christians do with this rejected and condemned people the Jews? Since they live among us, we dare not tolerate their conduct, now that we are aware of their lying and reviling and blaspheming. If we do, we become sharers in their lies, cursing and blasphemy.”
Luther urged German Christians to “set fire to their synagogues or schools” and forbid their rabbis “to teach henceforth on pain of loss and limb.”
“Anti-Semitism endures, now unleashed with new vigor in the American public square.”
Closer to history and home, many Jews and Baptists of a certain age painfully recall Southern Baptist leader Bailey Smith’s 1980 assertion that “God Almighty does not hear the prayer of a Jew.” And I’ve never forgotten Professor Glenn Hinson’s prophetic rejoinder: “Such is the stuff of which Holocausts are made.”
Second, American Christians, particularly evangelicals, should resist the effort to think of Jews and their place in the world primarily as vehicles in events leading up to the premillennial return of Christ. That attitude can conceal an implicit anti-Semitism that understands Jews, not as people of God, but as pawns of premillennial theories.
Third, 21st-century Christians must ever struggle to distinguish anti-Semitism from political critiques of certain actions of the state of Israel in responding to Palestinians and others in the endless conflicts of what seems the irreconcilable “Holy Land.” This is a daunting task, to be sure. (BNG columnist Wendell Griffen boldly walked this fine line in a critique that merits rereading in light of the so-called “peace plan” announced January 28 by President Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu.)
Finally, the memory of Auschwitz provides a stark reminder to 21st-century America, challenging us to confront this critical moment in history. In A Spirituality of Resistance, Jewish philosopher/environmentalist Roger Gottlieb writes that “the Holocaust ‘prepares’ us” to confront the evils of our own time by remembering “how well-meaning, passive bystanders helped make the Holocaust possible.”
“The slaughter of six million Jews and five million other victims, carried out coldly and ‘rationally’ by civil servants and professionals as well as politicians and soldiers, by a ‘legitimate’ government and with the sanction or passive acceptance of much of the rest of the world, is an omen for the environmental ruin we are creating now.”
This week I came across this Holocaust Remembrance Day adage: “If we were to observe a moment of silence for all the victims of the Holocaust, we would have to remain silent for 11-and-a-half years.” And I remembered the words that bridge the Bible’s two Testaments: “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud laments; Rachel weeping for her children, and refusing all consolation, because they were no more.”
Never again, Yahweh, never again.